Profile: Tim the Janitor

When I was young, I’d read Dickens or Faulkner (Yeah. Not that young) and internally scoff at the dynamic characters that sometimes touched periphery, or walked into the story unannounced. They were bold, striking, larger-than-life, and I told myself they were characterizations, caricatures, expanded personalities.

Then I started living life in the real world (circa 2002) and found, oddly, those people are everywhere. It’s not that they were dynamic and expulsive and bold, or they commanded your attention, but the writerdemanded the reader see the character as such. They’re everyone you meet, if you know them well enough–or sometimes even if you don’t.

So I see character tropes repeated, Jungian archetypes that dance with only slight modifications to their characters. (Something Karen, a bogus channeler, said to me on my trip back from Buffalo. “Archetypes come in many shades. There are the shadow Knights, there are the light Knights, depending on your level of realization.” She wasn’t referring to Jungian, but nonetheless, they coincide like tarot cards to a deck of 52.) Yet I sit at my desk, or drive in my van, and while I’m out on the town I see fifty variations of the same Vagabond, twelve variations on the Businessman On Lunch, and even that Caustic Passive-Aggressive Nasty Boss who dedicates his life to avoiding work. Yep.

I was blessed with an incredibly dynamic family (growing up it wasn’t a blessing, but it shaped my love for characterization). My father and mother are at opposite extremes. My two brothers are at opposite extremes to my parents. I am somewhere in the middle, fulfilling a fifth, somewhat unexpected extreme. Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeve, except my father. Everyone finds way to interact with each other, except for my younger brother. Everyone makes peace with themselves, except for my mother. Etc.

So I have a great base.

The reason for the title is my profile of an incredibly dynamic character at my work.

Tim’s one of five maintenance/janitors. He’s six foot four tall with a farmer’s build–and by that I mean a beer gut and broad shoulders. Aging white hair–he’s got to be in his fifties. He has sun-caked skin that isn’t so much tan but leathered, stark, feral eyes that seem a little recessed in his head but not abnormally so. His teeth are not so much crooked but well-used so when he smiles, his face looks like a pumpkin. His hands are twice the size of mine, and he wears blue jeans and holey t-shirts. He’s a beast to look at, intimidating as hell to see walking down the hall. He always smells like motor oil and mustard.

He has spent his life making amends for something. I don’t know what. He’s spent the second half of his life recovering from something. I don’t know what. Perhaps drug use. Perhaps a rough childhood. He’s got a thin country accent that grows thick when he impersonates someone, and he’s proud of being a country hick. Not in a hickish way, but in a self-respecting way. “Loudest damn redneck you’ll ever see–or hear!” he said when we first met. Some raucous, bellowing laugh accompanied the hear which denoted years of cigarette ingestion and a past of partying.

You look him in the eye for more than three seconds, he’s got a story about killin’ rats over the weekend or the fence-posts he pulled or the power line he propped up by the live wire. He’d tell you about his Chevelle and siphoning gas in the 70’s, how he’d race down the main street in town while dodging college students. About his love for Hogan’s Heroes. He’d talk about tearing down his friend’s barn for two kegs of beer they finished in one night, and the resulting Barn Nail (they are, apparently larger than regular nails) in his heel the next day because of it.

And the thing that gets me the most is his openness. He’s a fun-loving kitten. He seems almost desperate to share in his zest for life, in his love. He radiates it, in a terrible, feral, violent, life-affirming way.

Yet the one thing I will always remember him for, and the thing I noticed first about him, is his haunting, nearly tuneless humming while he works. Like a moan two octaves lower than it should be, rising and lowering like some mournful spirit. “Hey Chris!” he’d say, then without skipping a beat, growl into this hum. Same song every time, for two years. And when he’s alone–or he thinks he is–and when he’s cleaning bathrooms, he bursts out his hum with such echoing gusto it resonates about him, through him. It saturates him while he works.

I don’t know why he does it, but I know after this place is closed down and deserted, kids sneaking in will most likely hear that haunting sound and think the worst. I know it. I feel it.

And, beyond that, nobody sees him that way. He’s just the annoying janitor who ribs and jibes good-naturedly when your day’s going to shit and you want nothing more than for him to dump your trash and, “moooove on” (his words).

There. There’s a character. Tomorrow I might do the Home Delivery manager. If nothing else, by the end of two weeks, I’d have a full cast of characters I can place in any situation, any role, any place.

People have so much power, sometimes it’s scary.

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Studying the Big Screen

Silversun Pickups – Rusted Wheel (Listening to all kinds of SP lately)

Personal life has been a little crazy: I’m half a step from quitting my job, cold-turkey, and moving to StL without a backup. I have no money, but I don’t care. I have to get out of here, the Starving Artist in me be damned.

I watched The Avengers over the weekend. Being a huge fan of Joss Whedon, I figured I’d have a heck of a time with the movie. I was right: all the characters were witty, quippy, cool. My favorite character was Hulk. My second favorite was Black Widow. Besides Dark Knight (which I’ve watched in the ballpark of, oh, fifty times), this movie is the best I’ve seen in a long time.

My fiancee, on the other hand, saw this movie as just another super hero movie. Since I have a healthy relationship with her, I figured it’d be in my best interest to figure out why. She said there was nothing for her. I’m sure a lot of females would agree: a superhero movie is for the guys. Tight clothes on all the women, all the guys saving all sorts of everyone, doing the action thing, fighting.

My fiancee doesn’t like gratuitous superhero fighting. She could watch chinese martial arts for days on end (given her heavy background in dance and ballet, which she says are two very different things), yet watching people zip around in the air and shoot lasers is boring. It’s understandable.

She watches movies for the relationships (I know this should be a big Duh, but it’s not always obvious). First and foremost. I watch movies for the personalities. How do they work? Are they developed? Are they dynamic? Do they explode against others?

Whedon knows the importance of well-developed personalities. He also understands the dynamic need for personalities to form relationships, whether they’re flawed or abusive or sterile or stellar. My fiancee loves some of the work he’s done, Firefly and Dollhouse being two of them. I think he’s a brilliant writer/director, personally, but that’s beside the point.

I study people. My fiancee studies people. Wholly different reasons. What do YOU look for when you watch a movie or read a book? Personalities? Setting? Dynamic plot? What’s your insertion point?

When I read a book the breaker will always be character description. If the character is weakly portrayed, or is underwhelming, I write the book off as a failure. It’s the first thing I did when reading Harry Potter: MC is an abused child who fumbles through everything? Not interesting. I don’t care if his wand is made of troll-nose hair and fitted in a banyon branch. (No offense to HP fans. The books have their pros. I’m only stating my opinion)

It’s why my favorite SCIFI book is Ender’s Game. It’s why my favorite fantasy is Drood. It’s why my favorite novel ever made is Count of Monte Cristo. It’s why I have Starfish in my top ten.

What do you REQUIRE when you read a novel? Good plot? Believable setting, story? Flawed, realistic characters? Lots and lots of complicated interactions between characters (a la Game of Thrones)? An Epic Quest (a la LotR; a la Wheel of Time)?

I’d love to know.

Unexpected Mindreading in Literature.

The previous blog post ties directly into this one.

I belong to an online writing group (Critique Circle) where amateur and pro writers alike come together and share critique strategy, their work, and whatever they want to talk about.

When I post my writing there, I’m constantly being told that my characters aren’t mind readers, and I should stop letting them know what the other characters are thinking. An example would be something like this: “David saw that Victor didn’t want him running down the stairs.”

In fact, besides passive verb use (I’m terrible at this), I get this every time I post. I’m a fan of flow, and I’m a fan of forward movement in a story, and instead of spending twice as many words writing “David saw the slow frown on Victor’s face when he pointed toward the stairs, and the half-shake of his head as he sullenly closed his eyes,” I opt for the shorter story. In short, David saw Victor’s reaction as negative.

We’re social people, all of us. Maybe it’s the amateurs telling me something false (which is possible), but maybe I’m a freak accident that gets nonverbal communication on a level that most writers don’t. I didn’t write, “David saw Victor remembering when Victor’s father fell down the stairs, breaking his leg: Victor never told anyone about it…” Because, well, that’s mindreading. Giving a motive behind an observed action as fact is mindreading, but observing an action isn’t.

Until I’m published twice (I’m not even published once), I’m an amateur, so I have no place to pass judgment on others’ critiques. It’s why I’m there. But I can’t help but scratch my head over this. I see it all the time in books. In fact, it’s something I use less often than the long, drawn-out version of my POV character observing facial movements. Why? I like people, and I find interactions complex.

Yet, and I’ve had over thirty unique people–writers–telling me this, my characters read minds because they observe the nonverbal. Clearly someone isn’t doing right. Is it me? Time will tell.

~x